Photo Credit: Jewish Press

A strategic treasure is waiting to be uncovered in Jerusalem, but our government leaders are choosing to ignore it – despite its unknown, but dangerous and fast-approaching, expiration date.

We’re referring to the northern neighborhood of Atarot – potentially home to 10,000 new Jewish residences. For years, Atarot has been overlooked by national and city planners, apparently for fear of negative international reaction, or possibly thoughts that it would end up being given over to the PA. But it is time to realize that if we don’t build it up now, we might lose the chance forever.

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Why? Because of the burgeoning illegal and unsafe Arab construction there. Either the nearby Arab neighborhood of Kafr Akeb will overflow its banks into Atarot or the buildings already standing there will be joined by new Arab residences and consume the area designated for a Jewish neighborhood.

Atarot is critically strategic in the struggle to ensure that united Jerusalem remains under Israeli sovereignty. If Atarot doesn’t remain Jewish, a contiguous north-south route of Arab neighborhoods – Kalandia, Bir Naballa, Beit Hanina, Shuafat, and even further south to Abu Dis and Bethlehem – will not only divide our capital, but will amount to a Gaza Strip-like area weaving through the middle of the city.

A Biblical Jewish location mentioned in the Book of Joshua, Atarot was successfully resettled in modern times in 1919. The harsh conditions faced there by the hardy Jewish farmers included lack of water, rock-filled fields, and British confiscation of large areas to build an airport nearby.

Still, Atarot gradually began to prosper – until the devastating blow of March 1948: Arabs ambushed a small convoy carrying supplies and soldiers and brutally murdered 14 Jews. A month later, Atarot’s remaining women and children were evacuated, and Atarot – a critical defense position protecting northern Jerusalem – was lost.

These days, Ruti Danon – whose brother Michael Strauss was one of the Atarot pioneers killed in battles there – dedicates many of her waking hours to memorializing Atarot and the heroism of its defenders. And her goal now is to ensure, before it’s too late, that Atarot is not lost once again. Just last week, she participated in an educational tour to the abandoned airport, organized by KeepJerusalem, for new and veteran Knesset members and city councilors.

MK Matan Cahana (Yemina), referring specifically to the city’s housing problems, asserted afterwards, “Atarot is the future of Jerusalem.”

“Instead of building in the south of the city and destroying both nature and archeology,” Cahana declared, “the authorities must approve construction in Atarot!”

Historic justice is a factor here as well. The settlers of Atarot left behind them 16 graves, including those of many who fell defending it. When the Jordanians wished to expand the abandoned airport, their bulldozers pushed the tombs south of the runway. After the Six-Day War, IDF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren identified and declared the site a mass grave. A monument erected there includes lines written after the evacuation by resident Leah Golovitzky, whose husband Chaim was killed there by Arabs in 1906:

“You earth-dwellers north of Atarot, forgive us! We could not stand the hard struggle, the hunger and thirst, and we left. Only you, beneath the tombstones, remained, guarding the land whose rocks you uprooted with your hands, the land you toiled over with your sweat and blood…”

But this holy area is in danger if Israel doesn’t build it up. An Arab takeover is very liable to take place – just as is happening elsewhere in lands liberated in the Six-Day War. And if that happens in Atarot, the mass grave will again be shunted aside, and those whom we unwillingly abandoned several decades ago will again be neglected – this time simply due to lack of initiative on our part.

Atarot’s sister-settlement, N’vei Yaakov, has now become two flourishing Jewish neighborhoods – N’vei Yaakov and Pisgat Ze’ev – in which many tens of thousands of residents reside. But the former Atarot airport remains desolate – 370 acres of land that are Israel’s last chance to house significant amounts of Jews in northern Jerusalem.

As former MK Aryeh Eldad wrote this week in Maariv, “Over the past decades, Jerusalem has been suffering from a negative immigration balance, with many Jews leaving because of the paucity of affordable housing and jobs. Housing prices in the capital are now higher than in the rest of the country.”

Eldad added that since nature abhors a vacuum, and since Prime Minister Netanyahu has not done a thing to promote Jewish housing in Atarot, the Trump administration actually planned to offer the area to the Palestinian Authority as part of its peace deal. Although the deal did not pan out, Eldad says it’s clear that if we don’t build 10,000 homes for Jews there – whether they be young couples or new immigrants from the West – “another monstrous Kafr Akeb can be expected to arise there, with European, Turkish, or Qatari funding. [Note: Kafr Akeb grew tenfold, from 7,000 to 70,000 residents, in just 15 years!]. Fear of the Biden Administration must not stop us from building there first!”

Several plans for building in Atarot have been considered over the years, including one that envisioned a sizeable charedi-religious neighborhood; it was abruptly shelved, apparently under American pressure, 20 years ago. Another plan then began to take shape that would restore Atarot as an industrial bio-tech and hi-tech park.

But if this plan comes at the expense of a residential plan, it is not sufficient. An Israeli industrial zone in Atarot will not put the brakes on the ever-present threat of a divided Jerusalem – i.e., a Palestinian state – as effectively as would 10,000 Jewish housing units there. Nor would it mitigate Jerusalem’s desperate demographic situation or provide the necessary mass affordable housing.

Our message is: For the sake of Yerushalayim, Atarot must be built up as a Jewish neighborhood!

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Chaim Silberstein is president of Keep Jerusalem-Im Eshkachech and the Jerusalem Capital Development Fund. He was formerly a senior adviser to Israel's minister of tourism. Hillel Fendel is the former senior editor of Arutz-7. For bus tours of the capital, to take part in Jerusalem advocacy efforts or to keep abreast of KeepJerusalem's activities, e-mail tours@keepjerusalem.org.